WASHINGTON — Labor's high hopes for major gains under President Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress have dimmed, raising fresh doubts about union leverage even in the best of political times.
Prospects for a health overhaul have faded. Even slimmer are the chances of achieving labor's chief goal: passage of a bill making it easier for unions to organize workers. A bipartisan jobs bill passed last week by the Senate drew tepid praise from AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who called it a "Band-Aid on an amputated limb" — far short of what unions wanted.
This wasn't what unions expected a year ago after spending more than $400 million to help elect Obama and increase the size of Democratic majorities in the Senate and House.
Leaders of labor's largest federation will try to figure out how to refocus their political agenda when they begin their annual meeting Monday in Orlando.
Another setback came in January, when two Senate Democrats joined Republicans in blocking the appointment of labor lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Becker has worked for the AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union. Republicans have said they fear Becker would push the board to require companies to recognize unions if they can get a simple majority of employees to sign union cards — the same "card check" measure that is stalled in Congress.
Labor leaders were counting on Obama put Becker in the post when Congress was out of session. They were disappointed when Obama said he wouldn't do it any time soon.
"Enough is enough," Trumka said in an e-mail to labor activists. He urged union members to call the White House and "demand that President Obama fight Republican obstructionism" on Becker's nomination.
AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale said union members have been more hopeful in recent days about Congress pushing some version of health care reform in the process known as reconciliation. They also believe Obama will direct more bailout money to community banks, infrastructure repair and development of green jobs. "One of the things we want to talk about is how we can build upon our existing grass-roots structure to make it bigger, more effective and get more results moving forward," Vale said.
Unions have fared much better with Obama than under Republican President George W. Bush. Obama helped save thousands of union jobs through federal bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler and by propping up state governments through the stimulus bill. Also, SEIU's president, Andy Stern, is one of the most frequent White House guests.
But the window seems to have shut on labor's top goal — a vote on the card check bill before Democrats lost their 60-vote majority in the Senate that could help keep GOP stalling tactics at bay. Unions believe changing the law is the only way for them to "level the playing field" with companies that have had an easier time stifling union organizing drives.